Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Maid in the U.S.A.

I haven't done a good blog rant in a while, and I've come across some subject matter that struck a chord with me in the last few days. I've been reading a book recommended to me by Dave, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In summary, the book is written by an educated, middle-aged journalist who goes under cover as a member of the working poor, taking various low-wage jobs in cities across America and seeing if she can make ends meet.

I finished Part 1, about her travails as a waitress in Key West, and found myself both fondly and nervously remembering my time at Pizza Hut as a waitress. Yesterday, I finished Part 2, which chronicles her time working as a maid through a national cleaning service in Maine. I'm now deep into Part 3, where she works as a "Wal-Martian" at a Twin Cities Wal-Mart location.

Having worked jobs in both retail (JoAnn Fabric & Crafts) and waitressing (Pizza Hut), her experiences in those positions held little surprise for me. The down-and-out waitresses she meets, for example, reminded me of many of the poor and near-homeless women who worked as waitresses when I was a hostess at the New Lenox Restaurant. And let's just say I have encountered my share of cranky retail managers and workers in my day.

However, the maid chapter was new to me for several reasons and opened up a whole new sad view of the American middle- and upper classes.

Growing up middle class with a thrifty and hard-working mother, we obviously never had a maid. I don't even think it would have ever entered my mom's mind as a possibility. My mom took care of most of the housework, and my dad, sister, and I chipped in, too. Now Dave and I split the chores about evenly in our too-small condo.

However, more and more people are getting maids nowadays, both upper- and middle-class. Partly I have read that this is because people can't physically clean their over-size homes, which just sounds stupid. If your home is too big for you to clean, it's probably bigger than you and your family need. I also understand that people are busy, lazy, and sometimes infirm. As to the last one, I have no response, but sorry, everyone is both busy and lazy, myself included. I guess you only get a maid if you are lazy, busy, AND have money to burn?

At any rate, if all of my pre-existing reasons to be anti-maid / cleaning service weren't enough, the author of "Nickel & Dimed" points out some others that I had never thought of. Maid services, despite charging large fees for cleaning, grossly under-pay their staff. This is depressing when you consider it's back-breaking work that actually takes a physical toll on the (mostly) women in the maid jobs. They frequently cannot afford health insurance on their maids' salaries, and their bosses pressure them to "work through the pain." Disgusted by the slave-driving she saw at her maid service, the author goes so far as to compare the managers to "pimps."

After working in the maid service for several weeks, the author reflected on the indignity of cleaning others' homes with little monetary gain and constant degradation:
"I have never employed a cleaning person or service... Partly this comes from having a mother who believed that a self-cleaned house was the hallmark of womanly virtue. Partly it's because my own normal work is sedentary, so that the housework I do - in dabs of fifteen minutes here and thirty minutes there - functions as a break. But mostly I rejected the idea, even after all my upper-middle-class friends had, guiltily and covertly as possible, hired help for themselves, because this is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being."

Sadly, all of that is still not enough for people to fire their maids and (gasp!) just clean their own damn houses themselves. However, if all of that wasn't enough, I'm betting that this last one might be: you are not getting as clean a house as you think you are getting. In fact, the maids might be making it worse.

The author describes the pressure to clean the house with (1) minimal product use, (2) no hot water, (3) minimal use of room-temperature water, and (4) the same water and sponges to clean both the bathrooms and the kitchens. Given my own notions of cleaning (and capitalism), I was surprised that the "clean" you get from a cleaning service isn't as good or better than what you can do on your own. After all, aren't they supposed to be the experts?

Wrong. The author cites numerous experts that not only do you need hot water to clean many surfaces, but you also need more time and product use than cleaning services are likely to spend. Mostly what the services seem to do is push around and mask dirt on countertops and floors, for example. The author pointed to several studies where homeowners could wipe a thick gray film off of floors that looked clean to the naked eye.

The result is a cheap motel type of clean - yes, everything looks neater, but you probably have copious amounts of bacteria smeared throughout your house, possibly brought over on the cleaning person's sponge from the previous home's bathroom. Gross.

Anyway, I never would have thought I'd get so disturbed by the section on maid services. But it does fit in with a lot of things not-so-good about American culture today. Pushing off unpleasant tasks to others, taking advantage of cheap pools of labor, and spending money that we could be putting to better uses.

So here's a solution: fire your maid and donate your excess cash to a battered women's shelter instead. Do your own cleaning and you will get a nice workout. And at least you will know it is clean.

1 comment:

Sara Sherman said...

Having someone clean my house HAD and HAS crossed my mind. But, in the end, the thrifty side of me wins out, and clean I must. (There is something to be said about sitting in a clean house and knowing it is that way because you did it).
Don't forget, I would like to read that book when you are done. I always meant to, after I saw the author on Oprah many years ago. (Yes, I have watched a few of her shows, not many - REALLY!)